The teenage years are a difficult and confusing time. They’re even more difficult and confusing if your girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped by a mad scientist who is being mind controlled by a sentient meteor. Such are the trying circumstances that Dave Miller must overcome in the classic Lucasfilm Games adventure game Maniac Mansion for the Commodore 64.
As the first game developed and published by Lucasfilm Games, the title has a special place in gaming history. It was also the first game to use the SCUMM engine (an acronym which stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), which was later used on games like Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure, and The Secret of Monkey Island. The engine eased the game’s creation process, allowing Gilbert to create it without having to write script for each action.
The game was designed by Gary Winnick and Ron Gilbert (who coded the original version of SCUMM with Chip Morningstar). Gilbert cites two major inspirations for the creation of the game. One was a love of the old B Horror films made in Hollywood. The influence is obvious in the plot, with it’s mad scientist who wants to control the world and needs teenage brains, the sentient meteor, and characters like Dead Cousin Ed (a mummy), and Green and Purple Tentacle (a pair of disembodied, walking, talking tentacles). It’s as though Gilbert and Winnick culled their characters episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and threw them all together. The game’s other influence was reactionary to the functionality of games made by Sierra On-Line, like the King’s Quest series. Gilbert disliked the parser required to control the Sierra games, and wanted to create a game where players could simply interact with the graphics on-screen through a point and click process.
That brings us back around to the game. Dave Miller decides to break into the mad scientist’s lab (a mad scientist named Dr. Fred in case you’re curious) and rescue Sandy. The player could choose some of Dave’s friends to accompany him on the mission. The friends were: a new wave musician named Syd, a photographer named Michael, a writer named Wendy, a scientist named Bernard Bernoulli, a surfer named Jeff, and a punk rocker named Razor. Each character had his or her own unique abilities and the characters chosen slightly altered how the game played out. The game also had a series of alternate endings, giving it a high replay ability.
Dave and his friends break into Dr. Fred’s mansion and search through the house while avoiding Fred’s family and goons (except for Green Tentacle. He’s cool. He just wants to be in a rock band). If any of the baddies catch you, they either capture or kill one of your characters. If all characters die, the game is over. In the meantime, you must search through the house and solve various puzzles until you free Sandy from the mad scientist’s clutches.
Maniac Mansion stands on its own as a great video game. It mixed humor with action and a pleasant amount of oddball, sci-fi/horror camp to create an entertaining gaming experience. It also brilliantly foreshadowed what was to come from Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts).